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Those bloody clashes at UC Berkeley put Democrats and Republicans in the Capitol at odds over free speech

Those bloody clashes at UC Berkeley put Democrats and Republicans in the Capitol at odds over free speech
UC Berkeley police officers guard the building where then-Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was to speak in February 2017. The speech was canceled. (Ben Margot / AP)

Last year's bloody clashes on California college campuses have spawned a battle in the state Legislature over how far the law should go to protect unpopular speech and prevent violence between those with opposing political views.

In recent weeks, legislators have started to act on bills introduced in response to a series of confrontations, including a melee at UC Berkeley over a proposed campus speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Lawmakers and activists have fought over a wide range of proposals, many introduced by Republicans who say conservative speech is being vetoed by violence on California campuses.

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Similar debates are happening in statehouses across the U.S., with many Democrats concerned that neo-Nazis and other purveyors of hate speech are instigating conflict, citing violence in Charlottesville, Va., last summer when white nationalists marched across the University of Virginia campus, and a far-right rally the following day that turned fatal.

California's Democratic majority has scuttled bills including one that would have disciplined students who interfere with speeches, or withheld funds from campuses that don't take steps to protect controversial speaking events.

"Freedom of speech is not free in California — it comes with a price," Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) said in a statement after the Democrats voted down her penalty bill. "As long as you say what government wants to hear, they'll protect your right to speak."

Another sidelined bill would have made it a crime to wear masks or disguises to demonstrations, but opponents said it could be used to quash free speech. Other measures, including legislation modeled on a Los Angeles antiviolence ordinance, are expected to be taken up in the next few weeks.

But stronger bipartisan consensus has emerged around a bill that would require state colleges to affirm in formal statements the importance of freedom of expression, and to set the stage for student instruction on the history and value of the First Amendment.

"When you have everyone with a deeper appreciation for why we need to have a free exchange of ideas, then people will be less inclined to take action against ideas that they find repugnant or wrong," said Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), who coauthored the bill with Democratic Assemblyman Bill Quirk of Hayward.

In all, nine bills were introduced in response to incidents including the February 2017 riot at UC Berkeley in which 150 protesters, many masked agitators, caused some $100,000 in damage and injured several people there to attend Yiannopoulos' speech, which was canceled.

The anti-Yiannopoulos protesters, who accused him of hate speech, hurled Molotov cocktails, set fires, threw fireworks at police and smashed windows using barricades, according to authorities. Many wore face coverings to hide their identity.

Clashes in later months resulted in the cancellation of an appearance on campus by conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

And in April of last year, an off-campus event billed as a "Patriot Day" rally by far-right, pro-Trump activists resulted in 21 arrests after fights broke out with counterprotesters. The Times reported both sides threw rocks and sticks at one another.

Naweed Tahmas, a leader of the UC Berkeley College Republicans, testified at one of a series of legislative hearings held in recent weeks that he has been chased, threatened, punched and spat on by people on campus who disagree with his political views.

"I am not exaggerating when I say that free speech is on life support at UC Berkeley," Tahmas told legislators. "I do not feel safe on my own campus."

Nobody from the public testified against the bill, but Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva (D-Fullerton) disputed the claims of supporters.

"Where I would disagree is, unlike some of your information for Berkeley, I think free speech is alive and well," she said, noting that Yiannopoulos spoke at Cal State Fullerton in her district and there was no violence because steps were taken to keep protesters apart.

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A federal lawsuit alleges that Katrina Redelsheimer and her husband, John Jennings, went to UC Berkeley last year to hear Yiannopoulos and were attacked by a crowd of black-clad anarchists who beat the couple with sticks, kicked them and doused them with pepper spray.

"I thought that my husband was dead," Redelsheimer said this month, recalling the sight of her husband lying unconscious on the ground.

The lawsuit charges that the UC administrators and police violated the couple's civil rights by failing to protect them, "permitting hordes of rioters to swarm the University campus in a violent rage."

UC administrator Karen French told lawmakers during a hearing last week that free-speech rights are a priority for the universities, but that restrictions on public events are sometimes warranted when student safety is at risk.

The Kiley-Quirk measure has been endorsed by the 13 Democrats and Republicans who make up the Assembly Committee on Higher Education. The measure was drafted with input from Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, and Howard Gillman, chancellor of UC Irvine.

The instruction on the importance of the First Amendment can happen in classrooms, at student orientations or in other venues, according to the bill. Supporters say its aim is to strike a balance that avoids punishing schools or students.

"Through educational programming, universities can help foster an appreciation for the history and value of free speech, and why it is essential to democratic government and academic freedom," Chemerinsky said.

Another legislative committee recommended a measure by state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) that would require the California Community Colleges and California State University systems to adopt "free expression" policies that end the practice of limiting speeches and literature distribution to small, remote "free speech zones" on campuses.

Instead, the bill would require larger outdoor areas on campuses to be designated for public discourse, including allowing students to "spontaneously and contemporaneously distribute literature and assemble."

The rejected Melendez bill would have gone much further by allowing the state to withhold funding from campuses that fail to comply with a statewide policy on free speech. The legislation would have also prohibited university administrators from disinviting speakers who students have invited to events, and created disciplinary actions for students who interfere with the free-speech rights of others.

Opponents were concerned that the bill's proposal to allow funds to be withheld from campuses deemed out of compliance could result in the disruption of thousands of students' college educations.

Jose Medina (D-Riverside), chairman of the Committee on Higher Education, said the proposal was "too prescriptive, and I believe if enacted it would result in unintended consequences."

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That drew rebukes from Melendez and Tahmas, who charged that Democrats "failed in their duty to protect the constitutional rights of California's students."

Tension rose again this week when a Senate panel rejected a Republican bill that would have made it a crime to wear a mask or disguise to public demonstrations.

Nielsen told colleagues that he introduced the bill out of alarm that law enforcement did not act more aggressively in stopping violence at UC Berkeley.

A representative of the ACLU of California said that there is no need for Nielsen's bill because the law already makes it illegal to wear a mask during the commission of a crime, adding that allowing police to arrest masked persons not committing a crime could lead to disparate treatment based on the message of the demonstrator.

Still awaiting a vote are measures including a bill by state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) modeled after a Los Angeles ordinance that makes it a crime to carry sticks, rocks, baseball bats, glass bottles, guns, knives and pepper spray at public demonstrations.

"I just think you don't need a two-by-four or a lead pipe to hold up a sign," Moorlach said. "We're trying to say you should not be intimidating people and you should not be causing physical harm to people, nor should you be destroying property that belongs to the state of California."

Redelsheimer is skeptical of the flurry of legislative activity in Sacramento.

"State-funded institutions are already required to abide by the First Amendment," she said. "Attacking people with sticks and pepper spray is similarly already illegal. As usual, what we need is the will to abide by and enforce existing law rather than create new legislation."

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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